The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a federal lawsuit yesterday challenging the infliction of daily prayer upon a captive audience of elementary school children in the Emanuel County School System, Swainsboro, Ga.
Defendants include Superintendent Kevin Judy, Swainsboro Primary School Principal Valorie Watkins, Swainsboro Primary School teacher Kaytrene Bright and Swainsboro primary school teacher Cel Thompson. Anonymous co-plaintiffs are Jane and John Doe, and their young children, Jesse and Jamie Doe.
"Encouraging the Doe children to pray, or isolating and punishing the Doe children for electing not to pray, violates the deeply and sincerely held moral convictions of the Doe children and therefore their First Amendment rights," reads FFRF's legal complaint.
Before lunch, Jamie's teacher, Cel Thompson, asked students to bow heads, fold hands and pray, leading the class in a call and response prayer: "God our Father, we give thanks, for our many blessings. Amen."
In Jesse's first-grade class, Kaytrene Bright led students in this daily prayer: "God is great. Let us thank you for our food. Thank you for our daily prayer. Thank you. Amen."
When the parents first learned of the prayer practice in August 2014, they immediately contacted Principal Valorie Watkins to object. The teachers responded by telling the Doe children to leave their classrooms and sit in the hallway while the rest of their classes prayed. According to Jesse, the teacher "used her mean voice" when instructing Jesse to wait in the hallway.
After being told to go to the hallway during prayers, Jamie was teased by a fellow student, who thought Jamie was being punished for not praying. After this incident, Jamie began to regularly complain about feeling uncomfortable in class, and Jamie's parents eventually had to pull their child out of school.
Jesse was pressured all semester long to pray. Bright even held Jesse back from recess to explain her personal Christian beliefs at length, and said that Jesse's mother was a bad person for not believing in God. At the end of the semester, Jesse began to join in the classroom prayers because of Bright's and other employees' continued coercion.
FFRF, a national state/church watchdog with more than 21,500 members, including more than 400 in Georgia and an Atlanta-area chapter, first complained about the prayers in a strong letter of complaint on Aug. 20, 2014. FFRF pointed to more than 65 years of Supreme Court precedent against religious devotions and proselytizing in public schools. Despite a response from the district indicating it had "taken steps to stop the conduct," the prayers continued.
"It should not be necessary for FFRF to sue over such an obvious violation of specific Supreme Court decisions barring devotions from our public schools," noted Dan Barker, FFRF co-president. "No child in our secular school system or their parents should be subjected to prayer, or stigmatized when their parents speak up to defend the Establishment Clause. But unfortunately, it appears a lawsuit will be the only way to protect the freedom of conscience of these young children."
"If anyone needs a picture drawn on how destructive religion is in our public schools, this situation is a perfect example," added Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president. "The fact that such abusive practices are continuing in our public schools 63 years after the first Supreme Court decision against school prayer shows just how much FFRF's legal work is still needed."
The federal lawsuit seeks to permanently enjoin the defendants from continuing to organize, participate in or otherwise endorse prayer in a school setting, and asks for compensatory damages, punitive damages and reasonable attorney fees and court costs.
FFRF is represented by W.R. Nichols of Atlanta, with FFRF Staff Attorneys Samuel T. Grover and Andrew L. Seidel serving as co-counsel.
FFRF v. Emanuel County School System, Case No. CV615-013, is at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, Statesboro Division.